The Word From Rome
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June 17, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 36

John L. Allen Jr.


"The church has the right to express its views...  As far as I can tell, ingerenza is a word used to describe behavior that somebody doesn’t like. The same behavior would be praised as good citizenship by somebody who happens to agree with what the church is saying."

- Ernesto Galli della Loggia,
 University of Perugia

Benedict XVI wins round in culture wars; results explained; next round in Spain; Vatican and Israel on taxing church property; pope meets with WCC head; Regina Mundi, early theology school for women, closes; justice and peace council applauds debt forgiveness.


For those keeping score in the contest between the Catholic Church and the “dictatorship of relativism” identified by Pope Benedict XVI as the central threat to the faith in the West, this week the church jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, winning a hotly contested June 12-13 referendum in Italy over in-vitro fertilization.

Last Sunday and Monday, Italians were asked to vote on four proposals to liberalize the country’s restrictive law on what’s known here as “assisted procreation.” Under the strong leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar in Rome and president of the Italian bishops’ conference, and with the explicit support of Pope Benedict, the Catholic church mobilized at all levels to persuade Italians to stay away from the ballot box, with the goal of keeping turnout lower than fifty percent and thereby invalidating the referendum.

In the end, only 25.9 percent of eligible voters showed up, thereby preserving the 2004 law, known as Law 40, which:

  • Restricts in-vitro techniques to heterosexual couples, thus banning access for homosexuals and single mothers;
  • Stipulates that only three embryos may be created at a time, and they must be implanted, effectively banning cryogenic preservation;
  • Prohibits research on embryos;
  • Declares embryos holders of human rights.

The proposed reforms would have eliminated each of these provisions.

While analysts say there were many reasons for the result – the proliferation of referenda in Italy, which has produced a kind of apathy about special ballots, and the fact that assisted procreation directly concerns only a small percentage of the population – nevertheless, in the court of popular opinion, Ruini and the Catholic Church emerged as the great victor.

SkyTG 24, more or less the CNN of Italy, broadcast a picture of Ruini the instant the polls closed on Monday, unambiguously proclaiming him “the winner.”

Ruini was gracious, telling Italian television, “I didn’t win anything. I simply did my duty as a bishop.”

The outcome reverses the church’s previously dismal track record on Italian referenda. To great fanfare, it lost titanic battles in 1974 over divorce and in 1981 over abortion. The result this time has thus been seen as a demonstration of the church’s residual political muscle, despite declining vocations and low rates of Mass attendance in some parts of the country.

The efforts of the church were tenacious and comprehensive. An annual June 11 pilgrimage to Loreto, Italy, where according to tradition the “holy house” of Nazareth rests, became on the eve of the vote the site of something akin to a political rally. In San Giovanni Rotondo, home of the famous shrine of Padre Pio, the faithful were urged to “greater commitment in defense of life.” (It seemed to work; San Giovannio Rotondo had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, just 8.5 percent).L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, published extensive pro-abstention commentary in the days leading up to the June 12-13 ballot.

On Monday, May 31, Pope Benedict XVI told the Italian bishops that he was close to them “in word and prayer” in their efforts to “illuminate and motivate the choices of Catholics and of all citizens regarding the referendum,” in what amounted to an endorsement of the pro-abstention stance.

Indirectly, the pope gave another boost in his General Audience on Wednesday, June 8, when he quoted the sixth-century Christian author Barsanufius of Gaza: “What is the principle of wisdom, if not to abstain from all that which is odious to God?” In context, most Italian observers took the pope’s deliberate use of the word “abstain” as an endorsement of the no-vote campaign.

Most analysts believe the church will draw momentum from this result. Ruini emerges as perhaps the most important power-broker in Italian affairs. Those politicians of both left and right who stood with the church will enjoy enhanced credibility.

Further, the result will strengthen the hand of those at senior levels in the church who agree with Pope Benedict’s diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West, but not necessarily the cure. Benedict sees Christianity, especially in Europe, as a “creative minority,” long past the moment when it could pretend to shape mass culture. Ruini is less willing to throw in the towel on the church’s social clout, believing that a focused and united church can still mobilize the vox populi. Ruini’s triumph will lend credibility to his side of that argument.

It remains to be seen where the Italian church will want to spend this new political capital, or how long it may last, but for now the church can bask in a clear win after a long, dry spell at the ballot box.

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In Italy, as in the United States and elsewhere, when politics become caught up in the “culture wars,” debates turn bitter. Despite efforts to keep things civil this time around – Ruini, for one, appealed for discussion in “serene and respectful fashion” – the June 12-13 referendum nevertheless saw its share of pique.

Posters and flyers that cropped up around Italy illustrate the point.

“Woman, demonstrate that women are capable of reasoning with their head and not just the uterus,” one read. In smaller print, it went on to say: “Men, in order to satisfy their instincts, pay an Albanian woman to use her body for his pleasure. Now women are paying another Albanian woman to satisfy their reproductive instincts.” The reference was to the use of poor immigrant women as “surrogate mothers.”

None of these inflammatory messages, it should be said, were sponsored by the church.

Another poster showed provocative images of “gay pride” parades, with the slogan: “Do we want to allow them to destroy the sacredness of the family? Don’t vote June 12-13.”

Perhaps the most incendiary bit of campaign literature showed an image of Adolph Hitler with his hand on the shoulder of a blond-haired, blue-eyed youth with the slogan: “Perfect children? I’m voting ‘yes’ four times.”

On the other side, the ex-communist newspaper Unità carried a pro-referendum headline attacking the opposition: “Four million sick people condemned by a cruel law,” a reference to the prohibition on research using embryos.

Marco Pannella, leader of the Radical party and a longtime anti-clerical warrior, asserted: “If the embryo is a person, then the spermatozoa are its father, and thus we should prohibit masturbation as the homicide of millions of possible parents.”

In the past, Pannella has defined the Vatican as an “enemy of life” that seeks “to create death and sorrow on every occasion.”

One of the more creative pro-referendum posters showed an image of St. Joseph and the Holy Family, with the slogan: “Even if he’s not the biological father, what difference does it make?”


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An interesting facet of the Italian debate is that, unlike in the United States, the “faith and values” vote does not break exclusively along partisan political lines. There were a variety of positions on both the right and the left, and the parties generally left members free to vote their consciences.

For example, Gianfranco Fini, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the leader of the National Alliance, a descendent of the old Fascist party, announced that he would vote “yes” on three of the four proposed reforms. (His one reservation was about opening up access to in-vitro techniques beyond heterosexual couples). Stefania Prestigiacomo, Minister of Equal Opportunity and a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, also supported the referendum.

Meanwhile, Francesco Rutelli, leader of the Margherita party and the candidate of the center-left as Berlusconi’s opponent in the last national elections, supported the church in the abstention campaign. Several other members of the “centrist” wing of the opposition joined Rutelli in that stance, and many observers believe that Rutelli’s position in the coalition has been strengthened by the outcome at the expense of Romano Prodi, currently projected as the leader of the center-left in the coming elections, who supported the referendum.

Given the perception of a big win for the church, the result of the June 12-13 referendum is likely to strengthen the “Catholic” voice on both sides, meaning the “culture of life” debates will be less likely to function as wedge issues between the two major coalitions. In that sense, the Italian left has so far managed to avoid being boxed into the position of the Democrats in the United States, i.e., being seen as the party of ideological secularism, leaving the Republicans to pick up the mantle of faith and values.

This phenomenon also means the church is taken more seriously as a “neutral arbiter” on moral issues, as opposed to a special interest group backing one or another of the current political alignments.


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* * *

For additional perspective on the Italian result, I turned to Ernesto Galli della Loggia, an Italian political scientist at the University of Perugia and a leading commentator on public affairs. Galli della Loggia is a conservative close to Ruini, but at the same time a non-believer sometimes critical of the Catholic Church.

“I don’t think this is a great victory for the Italian bishops,” Galli della Loggia said. “Their role was important but not decisive.”

Fundamentally, Galli della Loggia argued, the referendum failed because it did not generate “passionate interest” among the electorate. The divorce and abortion votes, he said, directly concerned almost everyone, while in-vitro fertilization touched the lives of “a few tens of thousands.”

Yet, Galli della Loggia said, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the church’s contribution. One feature in particular made it different from previous national debates – perhaps for the first time since the 1948 election between Christian Democracy and Communism, virtually every sector of the Catholic world in Italy was in lockstep. Unity among bishops, clergy, lay associations, and grassroots initiatives, Galli della Loggia said, was impressive.

How to explain it?

First, he said, the choice for abstention was “minimalist,” in that abstaining from the vote did not necessarily imply a position on the reforms. It could also mean that one didn’t believe such questions ought to be resolved at the ballot box, or that not enough information was available. In that sense, it was a “bigger umbrella” than urging a “no” vote.

Second, he said, the culture of the Catholic Church in Italy has evolved in tandem with broader ideological and cultural trends, creating less space for dissent and greater internal discipline.

“The general crisis of the left in the West,” Galli della Loggia said, “has also been felt in the Catholic world.” By that he meant that movements and individuals within the Catholic world who might challenge official positions on issues such as the referendum today have reduced momentum within the church, and are less likely to be bolstered by allies in secular politics outside.

I asked Galli della Loggia about complaints that the church was guilty of what the Italians call ingerenza, meaning unacceptable interference in political matters. This was the thrust of a June 16 editorial in the New York Times, for example, which suggested that the Italian bishops had attempted “to dangerously tamper with democracy to impose their rules on everyone else.”

“The church has the right to express its views,” Galli della Loggia said. “As far as I can tell, ingerenza is a word used to describe behavior that somebody doesn’t like. The same behavior would be praised as good citizenship by somebody who happens to agree with what the church is saying.”

He also noted that the hierarchy did not threaten to excommunicate anyone for failing to abstain, and that according to one estimate, 11,000 of the 25,000 parishes in Italy did not use the anti-referendum materials sent out by the bishops’ conference, which would suggest fairly wide latitude within the church.

(In fact, one Italian theologian did lose a teaching position after having said publicly that he intended to vote “yes” on three of the four reforms. Fr. Rodolfo Zecchini, who taught ethics at a theological studies center named San Zeno in Verona, was removed by his bishop. Zecchini also told a local newspaper that it is “debatable” whether an embryo is a human being).

Finally, Galli della Loggia said he believes the Italian victory may embolden the church in other European countries, especially in Spain, where that country’s Senate is set to debate a gay marriage law June 22. A massive street procession is scheduled for this Saturday in opposition.

“Up to now, the Spanish bishops have been on the defensive,” Galli della Loggia said. “This may encourage them to pass to the counter-attack.”


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Speaking of Spain, as this column is posted I’m in Madrid to cover the June 18 demonstration, which is sponsored by the Foro Español de la Familia, or “Spanish Forum for the Family,” an umbrella group of some 150 grassroots associations. While secular organizations, as well as Jews and Muslims, are part of the initiative, the overwhelming majority of those involved are Catholics. On June 9, the Spanish bishops’ conference endorsed the gathering, the first time since 1983 the bishops have given their blessing to a public rally.

Estimates of anticipated turnout range from 500,000 to one million.

Most immediately, Saturday’s rally expresses opposition to a new gay marriage law, which also provides adoption rights to gay couples. The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has also vowed to speed up divorce, to relax restrictions on abortion, to liberalize access to fertility treatments, to convert religious instruction in Spanish schools into “education for citizenship,” and to reexamine the system of state funding for the church.

Bishop Juan Antonio Reig of Segorbe-Castellón recently defined the government’s efforts as “a tsunami of legislation … aimed at the destruction of Christian civilization.”

The ill will has even surfaced in haggling over details for the rally. Government officials have so far declined to issue permits for the procession’s planned route, claiming that it would impede traffic flow in Madrid. Organizers point out, however, that such concerns did not stop the government from authorizing a group of nude bicyclists to pass through the city center last weekend.

Spain is an increasingly important focus in the battle against the “dictatorship of relativism,” and next week I’ll have a report from the front.


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June 15 marked the 11th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, and despite optimism and good will on all sides, the “side agreements” on the economic status of Catholic institutions in Israel anticipated by the Fundamental Agreement of 1994 have still not been reached.

The failure to come to agreement has been a long-running nuisance in Vatican-Israeli relations, and has at times threatened to complicate the broader Jewish-Christian relationship. Periodically breakthroughs have been predicted, only to fall apart at the last minute.

The parties are continuing to meet, but perhaps to avoid the cycle of raised expectations followed by frustration, they are deliberately not saying much about the content of these encounters.

One matter illustrating the difficulties that still encumber the relationship will come before Israel’s High Court of Justice (more or less its Supreme Court) on June 29, when oral arguments are scheduled in a case involving the tax status of a pilgrimage center owned by the Archdiocese of Cologne on the Sea of Galilee. Like many church-administered institutions in Israel, the center was recently hit with a substantial bill for back taxes by the regional authority. When it invoked the Fundamental Agreement to justify suspension of the tax bill until agreement is reached on financial matters, the regional authority appealed to the national government, which stated that the Fundamental Agreement is not yet a matter of binding Israeli law. In a complicated series of events, the matter ended up before the high court.

Israeli authorities say that the court will likely not render a judgment, awaiting resolution of the negotiations between the Holy See and the Israeli government. Those authorities also say that in the end, the pilgrimage center, like other church-run activities, will not have to pay the tax bill, which in some cases involves sums that could cripple these institutions.

The Israeli game plan, these authorities say, is for whatever agreement is worked out to be written into national law, so that the rights and obligations of both parties are clear. When that happens, they say, cases such as that involving Cologne’s pilgrimage center will no longer be an issue.

Parties on all sides say that the broad outlines of an agreement exist, and that it’s a matter of patience and good will to bring the negotiations to conclusion. Only time will tell if this bit of optimism has a better possibility of being realized than those that have preceded it.


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The Secretary General of the World Council of Churches met Pope Benedict XVI in a 15-minute private audience on Thursday. The WCC is an umbrella group for ecumenical cooperation among 347 Christian churches, excluding the Roman Catholic Church, though Catholics work cooperatively with the organization.

The meeting takes on an added layer of significance given that in years past, some Christian conservatives have seen the WCC as unacceptably liberal, and there have been question marks about the extent to which Pope Benedict would see groups such as the WCC as promising interlocutors.

Dr. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist minister from Kenya, told reporters in Rome June 16 that his meeting with the pope touched on three points: “spiritual ecumenism,” especially the need to defend shared values in a constantly-changing world; the challenge of secularity in Europe; and Africa, including the need for deep catechesis to solidify the rapid spread of Christianity on the continent.

What kind of Christianity are we talking about?” Kobia asked. “There’s a proliferation of groups and individuals who approach the gospel as a way of making money. In Africa, we say that faith in Christianity is two miles long and two inches deep.”

Interestingly, Kobia said he and the pope did not discuss a fourth point that Kobia raised in his written statement, which is differing ecclesiological positions between Catholics and many other Christian denominations. Kobia called for work towards “mutual recognition of churches as churches”; as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope was responsible for a 2000 document, Dominus Iesus, that said Protestant churches lacking valid ministers and sacraments cannot be considered churches “in the proper sense.”

Kobia extended an invitation to Pope Benedict to visit the WCC in Geneva.

In his remarks, Pope Benedict reciprocated the desire for good relations.

“The commitment of the Catholic Church to the search for Christian unity is irreversible,” the pope said. “I therefore wish to assure you that she is eager to continue cooperation with the World Council of Churches.”


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There’s some sad news this week with the closing of Regina Mundi, the first center of studies in Rome explicitly created for the theological education of women, and long a symbol of the intellectual coming of age of women in the Catholic Church.

Ironically, Regina Mundi marked its fiftieth anniversary just last year.

Regina Mundi is administered by the International Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for women religious in the Catholic Church. The leadership of the UISG cited financial difficulties as the basic factor behind the closing, coupled with declining enrolments.

In that sense, one faculty member described Regina Mundi as a “victim of its own success.” It was founded at a time when there were almost no other options for women to pursue advanced theological studies in the Catholic Church. Today, similar institutes exist all over the world.

Located on the Via Lungotevere Tor di Nona in Rome, on the banks of the Tiber River, the Regina Mundi currently has a student population of some 250 women religious from various parts of the world, mostly from Africa, Asia, and the Near East.

The institute offers two basic programs.

One is a three-year academic program leading to the equivalent of a baccalaureate in religious sciences, which can become a master’s degree after an additional year of study. The second is a course for “formators,” women involved in the formation of other religious – mistresses of novices, vocations directors, spiritual directors, retreat planners, and so on.

“It’s balanced, very international, and both pastoral and practical,” Sr. Judith Moore of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, said of the formators program. Moore said her community has sent eight sisters, most from the Pacific, to the program.

Technically, according to Sister of Mercy Clare McGovern, president of Regina Mundi, what has been announced is a “suspension” of the institute rather than a formal closing. Regina Mundi has been through one such hiatus before, from 2000 to 2002. This time, however, sources say it is unlikely that the institute will be re-opened.

Regina Mundi was founded on October 18, l954, during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. A precursor came in 1943 at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, when Sr. Mary Madeleva Wolff, a religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross, was concerned by the fact that no graduate schools of theology were open to the laity, mostly women, who taught religion.She began the first graduate program in Sacred Theology and Scripture, later recognized by the Vatican as a model for Regina Mundi.

McGovern told NCR June 14 that the students at Regina Mundi have largely found places at other Roman universities to continue their studies, such as the Gregorian University, the Lateran University, and the Urban University (the university for students from “mission countries” operated by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples).

Some members of the Regina Mundi community have expressed disappointment with the closure, arguing that while alternatives exist, few provide the specialized support that women from developing countries may need. Still, all concur that the situation for women pursuing theological study is vastly improved from the time of Regina Mundi’s founding, and that changed landscape is undoubtedly the heart of its legacy. 

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On Wednesday evening, June 15, I was atop a Roman rooftop with Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The occasion was a reception for the Friends of Georgetown University at the Hotel Minerva. The outspoken Martino has become a symbol of the Catholic Church’s engagement on issues of peace, development, and social justice.

The council was at it again this week, applauding the decision of the G8 to cancel $40 billion in debt owed by 18 developing countries, and to work to expand the debt forgiveness plan to an additional 20 countries.

The council made, however, two additional points.

First, the council indirectly asked the governments of these countries to ensure that the money released from debt repayments go to the public good.

“The Pontifical Council calls for the money that will now be freed to be used to bring about real and sustainable development opportunities to the people of those countries,” its June 14 statement said. “This can be accomplished through providing necessary public goods such as clean water, safe sanitation, basic health care and educational opportunities.”

Second, the council prodded developed countries to do more on behalf of the world’s poor.

“It is the responsibility of the governments of all nations to continue to work toward achieving the promises that have been made over the past thirty years,” the statement said. “This includes the commitment to provide 0.7% of GDP of developed countries as Official Development Assistance to developing countries.The promise was made, but only a small fraction of that money has ever been provided.This is the sort of program that should go hand in hand with debt relief.It is not enough to simply wipe away the debt.An increase in development aid should follow.”

“Those living in extreme poverty, who live with little hope for a brighter future for themselves or their families must be given the opportunity to share in the benefits of the world.It is the hope of this Pontifical Council that the decision to forgive this initial $40 billion in debt might simply be the first of many steps taken by all developed countries to work toward true solidarity with one another,” the statement concluded.


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